When I was five my family invited representatives from Exxon into our home to talk about the pipeline they wanted to construct down our driveway. Spunky and excitable, I remember being giddy to have visitors. We showed them our home and gave them tall glasses of tea that beaded sweat in the summer heat. They told us that, because we didn’t own our mineral rights, they could put the pipeline on our property whether we wanted it there or not. When my father asked what would happen if he didn’t sign the paper that lay in front of him, tiny print outlining changes to our life, they said they would do it anyway. They told my father that he had to sign this paper because he couldn’t stop them from putting the pipeline in. They told us that they pipeline would be safe, that it wouldn’t change anything. My father signed the paper. Years later we were told by lawyers that none of this was true and that if we truly hadn’t wanted Exxon to build the pipeline on our land that we shouldn’t have signed. But they told us that it was safe and that we had no other choice.
When I was 14 my father spoke words that changed my life, “Maya, I have leukemia.” When he typed these words into the Internet, page after page about the connection between benzene and other petrochemicals and leukemia came up. We immediately stopped drinking water from the hand-pump well we had used my entire life. Everything changed.
In the weeks that followed, Exxon assured us that the oil and gas transfer station on our property was perfectly safe. They did tell us, however, that the loud noises we had heard it making over the years had ‘not been happening’ but that if they did we should notify Exxon immediately. For the first time in the 10 years the station had been there they installed caps over valves that would signal any sort of release from the site and put up signs that said “Warning: Contains Benzene, May Cause Cancer.” We were safe they assured us. Exxon’s presence had not caused my father’s cancer.
When we woke up to the smell of chemicals on a heavy dark summer night the scene felt unreal. After enduring it for several hours our eyes began to burn and we felt nauseous. We tried calling our contact at Exxon but it was the middle of the night and they didn’t answer so we drove away from our home to sit at IHOP and wait for the sun. Exxon told us that they were fracking a nearby well. They were surprised we had noticed anything, they assured us that it was safe. They said that the symptoms we had experienced were not connected to the fracking. They said we were safe, but that night was the first time in my life I was truly scared of the woods. I remember closing the windows in my room, spraying the cheap perfume of my teenage years and crying in my bed — worried that this smell and the way I felt meant that I would have leukemia soon too. To this day, when I smell lime and coconut perfume I feel sick and sad. Exxon finally agreed to pay for us to stay in hotel when they fracked, offering this up like a parent cajoling an overly dramatic child. Relocating was unnecessary but if we insisted they could afford to comply. We were still told, however, that it was completely safe to stay in our home.
The most recent official press release from Exxon on the Pegasus spill claims that bitumen, the tar sands product that spilled from this pipeline, has not entered Lake Conway. The Attorney General of Arkansas, a man who is pro-petroleum, says that it has. Exxon’s claim that the lake is oil-free seems entirely based around an artificial designation that one of the main coves of the lake somehow does not ‘count’ as Lake Conway. Exxon also claims that the main animals impacted by the spill are venomous snakes, which reporting done by the Huffington Post suggests is not entirely true, as these impacted snakes have not been documented while many birds have. Exxon says that there should be no health impacts on the community from the spill. The people who live in the community are safe, there will be no longer term impacts from this spill. This same press release says that clean-up is almost complete. They say that Exxon will pay for all ‘valid’ claims from the spill.
I wonder what claims will count as valid. The fear and loss of innocence that I experienced as a result of Exxon’s involvement in my life must not have been ‘valid,’ because I’ve yet to see any sort of reimbursement for this claim. Truth is a funny thing, it changes based on who holds it. It is something we experience and live and authoritative assurances cannot change it. Exxon’s presence in my life has not been safe. No one can tell me otherwise because I’ve lived an experience that makes these words true.
Although I’d like to believe that the spill is cleaned up, that there will be no long-term health impacts, that the community is safe — I don’t. I don’t because when I was five I sat at a table and listened to representatives from Exxon lie to my parents, to their faces, to my face. I don’t think the tar sands oil has been cleaned up, or that it will be for years to come. I think people will live the impacts of this spill in their bodies for years, that many people may even be killed by it. I don’t think the community is safe. But that’s just me, that’s just my ‘truth’ about Exxon.